academia: January 2007 Archives

[x-posted at Rhetworks]

It's been too long since I tended to Rhetworks, but one of the first essays I took note of (and took notes on) when I started the site was Anne Stevens' and Jay Williams' "The Footnote, in Theory." My notes on the essay are hardly complete, but I do cite the essay with some approval and interest. At a time when I was exploring the disciplinary implications and applications of Franco Moretti's "distant reading," FIT was for me a nice example of what could be accomplished by aggregating what is a fairly occluded feature of academic prose, the footnote.

Stevens and Williams begin their essay with what I find to be a manageable and worthy set of goals:

We set out to determine, first and most simply, who and what works are most often cited in our pages. Second, we wanted to track trends and fashions, as well as constants. Over the past thirty years, theory has seen any number of upheavals and innovations, so we wanted to see if certain writers remained touchstones for our authors. Third, we wanted to investigate a related question, the question of the status of the footnote in our pages. Elaborating upon Anthony Grafton’s book The Footnote: A Curious History, we sought to investigate how theory is transmitted through notes, what sorts of conversations are held below the main text, and to thus discover in a different sort of way the identity of our journal, a journal that has been identified with theory for so long.

I quote their introduction at length for a reason. My main qualm with this essay is not a methodological one, although I think that their method does have its limits. As I commented in my entry on FIT, my biggest reservation is that there are a lot of visualization possibilities in a data set like the one that Stevens and Williams generate, and their article only scratches the surface of those possibilities. But this is one of those critiques that has its roots more in my interests than in any necessary shortcoming in the essay itself.

Little did I know, back when I was jotting down my thoughts, that Lindsay Waters, he of the Eclipse of Scholarship (Amazon) fame and Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard UP, had already provided a pithy, pop-culture-laden putdown of Stevens and Williams, some 3 or 4 months before I even found it, at the Chronicle: The Lure of the List. (I have Scott to thank for pointing it out today.)

The lure of the list refers to the temptation that "klutzes" like Richard Posner and "clowns" like David Letterman yield to, but above which we in the humanities should hold ourselves. Lists are, and I'm quoting variously here, like pornography, bogus social science, hocus pocus, pseudoscience, a Trojan horse, and so forth. I'm not sure "wastage" is a real word, but it's the cost of an article like this apparently, as is our neglect of scholarly "fruit wasting on the vine, whose cultivation might have benefited us all." It's hard for me to recite this giant list of mixed metaphors without rolling my eyes, just a little. It's really over the top.

And I say this as someone who genuinely appreciates the efforts of Waters to shake loose some of the entrenched assumptions about the relationship between the publishing and tenure industries. Even so.

I'll restrict myself to two criticisms and one compliment. The first criticism deals with Stevens' and Williams' introduction, which in Waters' review, becomes the following:

But my heart sank when I saw that the premier egghead journal of the land, Critical Inquiry, published an essay last winter that purported to rank the greatest literary theorists in its pages (and, by implication, the world).

Maybe there's a history here that I'm not privy to, but wow. I'm afraid I take the authors at their word when they say they're interested in charting the trends that occur in the pages of their journal. The master list of citations (and one should add, citation in footnotes) is only one of the charts provided, and the information it provides hardly translates into The Greatest Theorists in the World!!™

Maybe I'm just defensive here, but one of the things that we're trying to do with the CCC Online Archive is to provide this kind of information. We're not trying to generate tenure industry kinds of information, though; rather, we're interested in providing newcomers and veterans alike with new pathways into the scholarship collected in the journal. We're proud of pages like this one, which dynamically tracks the self-citation in the journal. Are these the "most important" articles, and their authors the Greatest Scholars in Our Discipline? Not at all. But it tells you something about the journal that would be hard to glean even from years of reading, unless you're particularly fond of bibliographies and have a particularly mighty memory.

My first criticism, then, is the cavalier way that Waters attributes motives to the Stevens and Williams, thereby doing the work that they actually do a great disservice. My second criticism is related: I'm not sure that Waters actually read the article, or made any effort to understand that work. His description of their method, once you get past the snottiness of "very likely bogus social-science tools," is curious. Why "very likely" in a review that is not exactly notable for the application of kid gloves?

Waters' only real critique of their methods is to smack at them for neglecting the work of sociologists like Robert K. Merton. Now as it turns out, Merton's work is on my Rhetworks list, and in my pile, so I actually have read it. Scott notes that

The casual, condescending quality of his dismissal fails to embody the standards it claims to uphold.

Merton's "Matthew Effect," which Waters cites approvingly, is in part a discussion of the reward structure in the sciences, where famous scientists receive disproportionate attention and reward for their efforts, and non-famous scientists get the shaft. The Matthew Effect is a rich-get-richer notion. But there's more to it than that. Merton also emphasizes the communication system; if attribution is the currency of the reward system, then visibility is the currency of the communication system. Famous scientists, he explains, may receive disproportionate rewards, but they also are able to make their ideas visible and diffuse more quickly, contributing to the development of knowledge.

What's interesting about Merton's original article on the Matthew Effect (.pdf from UPenn) is his interviews with various Nobel Laureates, who are acutely conscious both of their struggle to gain recognition and the privilege that accrued to their position once they did. What's interesting to me are the various strategies that they discuss for using their disproportionate visibility to help younger scholars. In other words, there's an ethical component here to the Matthew Effect, one felt strongly by many of those that Merton interviews.

What I take Scott to mean is that Waters, as the Executive Editor for the Humanities of Harvard Press writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, might himself reflect upon the ethical dimension of the Matthew Effect. Were he to do so, he might rightly conclude that reviewing an essay by misreading its intentions, distorting it, and calling it all sorts of names, is exactly the kind of disservice that Merton might find less than kosher. Whether or not Scott means it, that's my second criticism.

Now for a compliment. There's a legitimate argument lurking beneath all of the verbage and vitriol that characterizes Waters' column here. After recalling the top ten or so (and making note of all on the list who are affiliated with Harvard (??)), Waters writes

[The authors] note that "Benjamin's works are cited nonargumentatively," which I think is a nice way of saying his ideas are just window dressing, not engaged with. That must be why he ranks high as one of the most perfectly citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move, like a ballplayer's sign of the cross.

This is a genuinely interesting thesis, and speaks to the flux located just beneath the smooth surface of any list. At another point, Waters accuses the authors of "substitut[ing] accounting methods for critical judgment," and yet, just a few paragraphs later, Waters demonstrates that it's possible to generate critical judgment out of the evidence provided by these so-called "accounting methods."

And that's the real point here. Our institutions may indeed be on a quest to reduce what we do to numbers, and the tools are out there for them to do that. But in the humanities, we've avoided these kinds of evidence and these methods, out of a misplaced faith that if we simply close our eyes to them, they can't affect us. But the Nobel Laureates that Merton interviews are very conscious of the asymmetries attendant upon their activity, and it is that consciousness that allows them to try and redress them. There's a great deal of knowledge that we could be generating and building upon if we were to turn to information design, visualization, and yes, even some of these "accounting methods," not as ends in themselves, but as starting points for the kinds of critical judgments that Waters advocates.

For me, this kind of knowledge is far more likely to be the fruit that withers on the vine, at least in the field where I work.

That is all.

Letters of Reference

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I've spent most of my spare time over the past few working on our graduate admissions process, reading application files. One thing that I've noticed this year, as opposed to others, is the surprising number of applications we received where one of the "letters" of recommendation was little more than a generic paragraph. I'm not going to be specific about how many I've seen, or about the "letters" themselves, obviously, but if I could implant a single command in the minds of all my colleagues (and I use this term in its most global and expansive sense--I'm not talking about my SU colleagues here) simultaneously, it would be:

Endow a Chair for Collin

If I had a second command, though, and I were restricted in my impact to the various application processes surrounding graduate school (and including job searches), it would be this:

It is kinder in the long run to say no than it is to write a crappy letter.

That's less a command, I suppose, than an attitude, but it's one that more than a couple of my colleagues should abide by. As much as some of these paragraphs are offset by the presence of two other, more thoughtful letters, those thoughtful letters are themselves somewhat offset by the third. And while I know that it's de rigeur to talk about how empty and generic letters of reference have become, there are clear and obvious ways to make them engaging, appealing, and revealing. In most cases, I don't read letters of recommendation as a means of making or breaking an application; I'm more interested in finding out as much as I can about the candidates in a more global sense, and a good letter can be far more informative than the even more generic and often more empty formal application documents.

In general, I don't care about the coded language (highly recommended vs. strongly recommended vs. my highest recommendation, etc.). I find it more helpful to know what a student's strengths are in the seminar room, whether or not s/he is prepared to read and write in a fairly intensive program, whether or not s/he is comfortable in the classroom. I even take a pretty fair approach to discussions of those things that a student may still need to work on--we don't expect them to be ready for the tenure-track just yet, and it's better to know up front that a student may need more attention to this aspect of their education rather than that one.

By the time I've made it through multiple statements, and writing samples, and teaching materials, I have a pretty solid sense of each application. And so I'm looking for the letters to round out that impression, to tell me things that the application materials can only imply. And I'm more inclined to trust a letter that can narrate a student's growth (and even struggle) than the generic recitation of buzzwordy synonyms for "good."

I don't fool myself into thinking that anything I have to say on the matter will affect change in this regard. All I can do is to try and internalize the lessons that I learn and relearn annually as part of this process (my 5th year now on the admissions committee), and put them to good use as I write letters for our students.

But the one suggestion I would make, to applicants everywhere who are lining up their own letters, is that it wouldn't hurt to put together a pre-application package for your references, containing a list of the places you're applying, your writing sample, any statement of purpose (this will be your job letter in many cases), and copies of the work that you completed with this person (and/or teaching materials from any classes they have observed). It wouldn't also hurt, and may even be polite, to solicit feedback from your references on these various materials. In other words, do it far enough in advance that you can both solicit and make use of their feedback. They may not read this package, but since you're putting it together eventually anyway, it can help freshen you in their minds.

In my more optimistic moments, I speculate that part of the reason behind some of the paragraph/letters we received was that the applicants' work may have faded out of the short term memory of some of these recommenders. In my more realistic moments, I suppose I have to face up to the fact that not all of my colleagues share my sense of perspective when it comes to these kinds of activities. An extra 30 minutes spent crafting a letter of recommendation, in the long run, costs us very little, but can make a huge difference in the futures of our students. If you're going to say yes when a student asks for a letter, it seems mean and petty to me to turn around and begrudge that student those 30 minutes later on.

I'm just saying.



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from January 2007.

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